It's the 89th birthday this year of one of the most durable dolls in toy history, Raggedy Ann. And in Arcola Illinois, the birthplace of the doll's creator, John Barton -- or Johnny -- Gruelle, the town is sure to be celebrating the event.
Raggedy Ann actually began her life a few hundred miles east of Arcola in Indianapolis, Indiana, where Johnny Gruelle, a newspaper cartoonist and commercial artist, and his family were living, and where he discovered, quite by accident, an old rag doll in the attic. There was something about the doll that intrigued him, and he retrieved it from its dusty oblivion -- according to Patricia Hall in her book, The Real-For-Sure Story of Raggedy Ann. Gruelle thought the doll might be spruced up for his daughter, Marcella, whose birthday it was; and he asked his mother, who was living with them, to help with the repairs. He drew the doll a new face, and Grandmother Gruelle sewed on a new shoe-button eye, mended the tears in the doll's dress, and stitched in the perfect, finishing touch that Gruelle had selected -- a heart-shaped candy heart for the doll.
Gruelle's daughter became virtually inseparable from the doll, and Gruelle, who was always looking for business opportunities, realized that he had happened upon something magical. Soon he had begun an assembly line in their home to make more of the dolls, and in September of 1915, Gruelle obtained a patent on his Raggedy Ann doll, and they began to be mass produced the next year. As World War I was raging in Europe, Gruelle's doll became a darling in American households; and by 1918 she was the subject of a book, Raggedy Ann Stories, which Gruelle wrote and illustrated. These are sweet, pacific tales, set in a kind of idyllic American countryside, inhabited by generous farm folk, where adventures are never really threatening or dangerous and always end with a cheerful lesson learned. No wonder they were so popular, scholars like Jack Zipes have noted, because they offered a kind of optimistic, sheltered balance to the awful facts of the war.
In 1920, Gruelle added Andy, Raggedy Ann's brother to the family, and together the two dolls had enough adventures over the next two decades to fill nearly twenty other books. They brought Gruelle fame and fortune, but the stories may also have served as a consolation for the grief Gruelle felt for the rest of his life over the death of his daughter, who had died when she was just fourteen -- as a way for him to remember and through his art keep alive a sweet innocence that, in reality, had been lost.
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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